U.K. Supreme Court says people living in glass apartments have privacy rights from Tate Modern visitors

Britain's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that owners of a glass-clad luxury London apartment tower on the South Bank of the Thames had a right to privacy from viewers on an observation platform at the neighboring Tate Modern art gallery. A 3-2 court majority found that the 10th floor viewing gallery violated Britain's "common law of private nuisance."

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Given that some of the half a million annual visitors to the Tate's viewing gallery "take photographs of the interiors of the flats and sometimes post them on social media," Justice George Leggatt wrote for the court majority, "it is not difficult to imagine how oppressive living in such circumstances would feel for any ordinary person — much like being on display in a zoo." The viewing and photography from the Tate's gallery "beyond doubt" causes "a substantial interference with the ordinary use and enjoyment" of the glass houses, he added.

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The court case dates back to 2017, when five owners of four apartments in the Neo Bankside apartment tower sued the Tate, calling the viewing gallery, which opened in 2016, a "relentless" invasion of their privacy and asked for part of the gallery to be roped off. The High Court and the Court of Appeals both sided with the Tate, with the appellate court judges advising in February 2020 that the residents "lower their solar blinds."

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Natasha Rees, a lawyer for the residents, said her clients were "pleased and relieved" that the court had recognized how "oppressive" the viewing gallery was, and they would work with the Tate to "find a practical solution."

The current dispute centers on class and modern architecture, but the law in question "partly dates back to the 14th Century," Dominic Casciani writes at BBC News. "The Supreme Court notes that back then, John Le Leche, a London fishmonger, unlawfully erected a 'watch-tower' from which he could peep on his neighbors."

"Tate Modern opened in 2000 in a former power station on the south bank of the River Thames," helping "transform the surrounding Bankside neighborhood from a riverside backwater into an arts and nightlife hub dotted with luxury apartment towers," The Associated Press reports. The Neo Bankside apartments opened "a few years" before the Tate added its pyramid-like extension in 2016, giving gallery visitors a panoramic view of London — and a view into the glass-fronted apartments, a little over 100 feet away.

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